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Authors: Loreth Anne White

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BOOK: The Perfect Outsider
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June pressed him gently back against the pillows. “Do you recall those three words I gave you earlier, Jesse?”

What words?
Oh, wait…he did remember. He cleared his throat “
Radio, belt
and—” he gave a wry smile “—
Jesse
.”

“Your short-term memory is intact. That’s a good sign.”

“Yep. Great.”
Too bad about the rest.

“Do you remember anything else, like where you were coming from?”

Frustration heated his body. He tried to dig deeper into his memory, but all he got was a thick sense of fuzzy confusion.

“No, I—I think I was… No, I can’t recall a damn thing.”

“I checked your GPS. It appears you were traveling into Cold Plains over the north mountains. Do you remember how long you’ve been in the wilderness? Where you were going? Can you tell me why you have a
D
tattooed on your hip?”

“I have a tattoo?” Had June told him that already—or did the familiarity stem from a buried memory?

“He has the
D
because he’s one of Samuel’s enforcers,” Molly spat at him. “He knows
exactly
what you’re talking about, June—he’s lying that he doesn’t remember anything. Don’t fall for it.”

June said, quietly, without looking at the young woman, “Molly, can you please go to the kitchen and man the radio. Let me know if Davis reports in.”

Molly stomped out of the room and banged the door shut behind her.

“She’s afraid,” said June.

“Of
me?

“Of Samuel Grayson and whoever works for him, and if you’re one of his, that includes you.”

Samuel.
Why did that name strike such a strident cord in him? “Did you tell me about him already, in the ravine?”

“Samuel is the leader of a cult in Cold Plains,” June said, assessing him carefully as she spoke. Jesse got the sense she was watching for some kind of reaction to her words, something that would show he was lying. Anxiety curled through him.

“He calls his followers Devotees,” she said. “And, as Molly pointed out, he personally tattoos a small
D
on the hip of each one of his true followers.” She paused. “None of this sounds familiar?”

The trouble was, it did. But he couldn’t figure out why.

“No,” he said.

Her mouth flattened and something in her eyes changed. “Earlier you were muttering about Samuel and something urgent you had to do.”

Jesse’s heart began to race. His mouth felt dry. He did recall that now. But he didn’t know what it meant. And he didn’t like what was happening here. He glanced at the pistol holstered on her hip, then his gaze went to the door. It struck him there were no windows in this room. Claustrophobia crawled around the edges of his mind.

“I don’t remember saying those things.” He was lying now, and he knew it. He felt in his gut he had to, but didn’t understand why.

“You pulled a gun on me,” he said.

Her gaze was steady, cool. “You grabbed me.”

He frowned. The action hurt his head. His hand went to his forehead.

“Don’t touch.” She got to her feet, went over to a dresser that had framed photographs on top. She brought him a handheld mirror.

“You can take a look.”

He took the mirror from her, his hand brushing against her cool, slender fingers as he did. Jesse saw a wedding band on her left hand, and felt a sharp and sudden stab of remorse, guilt. Shame.

He glanced at his own hand. No wedding band—not even a tan line. But he felt as if something
should
be there. A deep uneasiness bored down into him. Slowly, he looked into the small mirror.

The face that looked back was familiar. His. But he could attach nothing more to it. She’d done a neat job of the stitches along his brow. A memory hit him. A woman, brunette, running through the dark forest. Rain. She had two young children in her arms. She was screaming hysterically.

Bastard! No henchman is going to get my children!

She had hit him with a branch across his brow.

Gunfire. He could recall shooting. There were men— running through the forest. Then he was falling, falling. Pain in his leg.

Then nothing. Swirling mist, blackness.

Sweat broke out over his torso.

Slowly he lowered the mirror.

Those clear, summer-sky eyes were staring intently at him. She was waiting.

But he said nothing. He was afraid he might have done something—he felt bad about it and he didn’t understand why.

She sat on the chair next to the bed and leaned forward, her elbows on her knees, her hands clasped in front of her. A quiet urgency buzzed about her.

“If you remember
anything,
Jesse, you need to tell me—it could help the lives of a mother and her small children.”

He looked away. Her black Lab was lying in a basket by the stove, watching him, too. The bed he was lying on was queen-size. There was a closet at the far end of the room. The walls of this room were uneven, and he realized suddenly that they were rock.

“Where am I?”

“A safe place. Look, Jesse, before anything else, I need you to try harder. A young mother in her thirties, brunette, went missing with her three-year-old twin girls in these woods two nights ago.” She paused, her intensity sharpening. “Her name is Lacy Matthews and she runs the coffee shop on Main Street in Cold Plains. Her twins are in the local day care. Lacy was a Devotee. Like you, she has a
D
tattooed on her hip. But she wanted to get out of the cult. I was supposed to meet her to bring her to this safe house, but she never showed up.”

“You help people escape the cult?”

Her eyes narrowed, and he thought he detected a sliver of fear.

“Yes,” she said coolly. “This is a halfway house, a place from where escapees can access exit-counseling, and then go on to start new lives somewhere else.”


You
do deprogramming?”

“I’m trained to offer early-stage exit-counseling.”

The words
cult, Devotee, henchman
circled around and around in Jesse’s brain, as if they were important to him. But he couldn’t slot them into any bigger picture.

The image of the brunette screaming, fleeing from him, sliced across his brain again, sharp, like pieces of broken mirror.

Jesse swallowed, met her gaze. Was he a bad guy—did he work for Samuel Grayson?

“Did you see Lacy and her daughters, Jesse?”

He cursed, suddenly agitated, angry. “I wish you’d stop asking me the same questions—I don’t remember a goddamn thing!”

She watched him in silence for several beats, as if weighing his words for truth.

“If you did see them,” she said very quietly, an anger now flickering deep in her eyes, “and if you told me where, I might be able save their lives, if they are even still alive.”

His heart hammered and his head pounded. She was repeating herself, pressing him as if she didn’t believe him. “Maybe if you searched where you said you found my Beretta,” he said quietly.

Her mouth flattened. “I never told you what kind of gun I found.”

He said nothing.

She lurched to her feet, hostility, determination in her movements.

“Well, that’s
exactly
where I’m going to start searching, Jesse. And believe me, if you’ve hurt them, I’m going to make you pay. I’m going to make damn sure you go down for it.”

He didn’t doubt her for a second.

She stalked toward the door, her black Lab surging instantly to follow at her heels, his claws clicking on the polished stone floor. She opened the door. Outside was a passageway, warm light. One hand on the door handle, she turned to face him.

“Someone will be armed with a shotgun and standing right outside. Try anything stupid and they’ll shoot you right through the door.”

“I’m a prisoner?”

“You’re tattooed with the
D
of a Devotee and you were carrying concealed, which implies you could be a cult enforcer. I don’t know if you’re playing me, or whether you actually have lost your memory, and I don’t know what you were doing in the woods where an innocent mother and her children went missing. Until I do know, you’re staying where you can’t hurt anyone.”

“You have no right to keep me locked in this…cave room, or whatever it is.”

“Until I can get the FBI, yeah, I figure I’ve got that right.”

June stepped out of the room. She shut the door with a snick. And Jesse heard a key turn in the lock.

* * *

Outside the door June leaned back against the cool rock wall and closed her eyes for a moment, trying to gather herself. She’d been rattled by her sharp and instant physical reaction to this rugged stranger she’d found in the woods—a man who could easily turn out to be an archenemy, someone who symbolized everything she detested, everything she’d devoted her life toward fighting.

“Everything okay?”

June blushed and cursed her redhead’s complexion. “I didn’t hear you coming, Molly. Listen, don’t go back into that room, not until I return. He’s got what he needs in there and he can use the en suite. Just make sure someone is outside here 24/7 with a loaded shotgun. If he causes trouble, threaten to shoot him through the door.”

Molly’s lips curved slightly. “I knew you’d see him for what he was. You shouldn’t have brought him here, June.”

“I couldn’t let him die. That’s not who I am.”

“Then what are you going to do with him?”

“Hand him over to FBI Agent Hawk Bledsoe, but my priority right now is Lacy and the twins. I’ll call Hawk when I’m closer to town and within cell-tower range.”

“Has Agent Bledsoe actually been to the cave house?”

“He knows it exists, but I haven’t brought him or any of the other agents in yet. It hasn’t been easy knowing who to trust, Molly—the fewer people who know where the house is the better.”

“But you do trust Agent Bledsoe?”

“He’s one of the only people out there I can trust. His sister-in-law is the reason I came to Cold Plains. I don’t know about the other agents, though. I haven’t wanted to take the risk.”

June left Molly standing outside the door as she went to get some dry clothes from the supply closet. She changed into jeans that were too large and cursed herself for not having the foresight to gather clothes from her own room before locking Jesse in—but she wasn’t going back in there now.

She checked her gear, fed Eager, grabbed an apple and headed back out into the rain with her dog. But as they reached the entrance to the tunnel, her pager beeped again.

It was Fargo. He was still looking for her. Tension strapped across June’s chest. It was just a matter of time before he went looking for her at the ranch, and when he saw her truck there, but no sign of her or her dog, he was going to get suspicious.

The clock was ticking on her cover.

June clicked on her headlamp and ducked into the black tunnel, hoping that rescuing a perfect stranger wasn’t going to be her downfall.

Or death.

Chapter 3

J
esse paced in his prison.

He appeared to be in some sort of cave room.

He felt the walls with the palm of his hand—they were definitely natural rock, cold, uneven. But the wall with the door had been constructed of concrete and was smooth and whitewashed, as if perhaps a dwelling had been constructed inside a giant cave and various rooms walled off. The air felt chilled in spite of the fact a fire burned in a black cast-iron stove in the corner. His gaze followed the stove flue up to the roof. It had been vented through a hole hewn into the rock ceiling. There were two more vents in the ceiling at different intervals—possibly to circulate air from the outside.

A small bathroom adjoined the bedroom. Jesse entered. It contained the bare basics—towels, a toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, body lotion, a comb and brush with some long red hairs.

No windows anywhere.

Claustrophobia tightened around him. He didn’t like the feeling of being underground and his was a prison not only of physical space, but of his own mind. He—the real Jesse, whoever he was—had been locked down somewhere deep inside his brain.

He exited the bathroom and paced the length of the room, then back again, working stiffness from his legs. The wound on his calf hurt, but better to keep it mobile, he thought, or that would stiffen up, too. And as he paced he had to ward off the stifling waves of anxiety induced by being confined in a small space.

Jesse needed wide-open spaces, wilderness, jagged snowcapped peaks…
horses
.

He froze.

Horses, snowcapped mountains—they felt like a part of him. Closing his eyes, he strained to unearth more around the images. But nothing more would come. He tried visualizing himself on a horse. He could almost feel the movement of the saddle, hear the creak of worn leather, the chink of a bridle. He saw a sandy trail unfolding in front of him. He could scent pine and he sensed at his side—within easy reach—a 270
Winchester
.

Sweat prickled over his body.

That was a very specific piece of information on the rifle, just as he’d known his official sidearm was a newly issued .40 Beretta. He stilled, heart kicking.

Issued.

Official.

He tried to dig even deeper but the clues scurried away from his consciousness into the shadowed crevices of his brain. It frustrated the hell out of him.

The words
cult, Devotee, Samuel, henchman
began to circle through his mind again, and again, and they came with a crushing, devastating sense of loss, guilt. Abandonment. Deception.

Sharp images sliced like shards through his head…the woman running, children screaming. Him raising his gun, anger pumping through his blood. Remorse. Something terrible…
his fault
.

Jesse braced his hands on the dresser, head down, brain spinning, and he closed his eyes, trying to force the memories into his head.

But nothing more would come to him

He slammed his fist onto the dresser.

The photos atop the dresser jumped and one of the frames toppled over. Startled at the force of his own simmering aggression, he picked up the frame to set it back on its stand and realized it was a photo of June. In it, she was crouching next to a man in a flight suit. A child stood between them with his little arms around the neck of a yellow Labrador. The photo had been shot in front of a small helicopter behind which there was dense forest and mountains.
Pacific Northwest, maybe,
thought Jesse.

BOOK: The Perfect Outsider
10.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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